As Shadows Fade Page 1


Wherein Our Heroine Considers Her Options

Victoria Gardella Grantworth de Lacy, Dowager Marchioness of Rockley, had a problem-and for once, it didn’t have to do with vampires.

Well, that wasn’t precisely true-it did, in an oblique way. There really wasn’t any part of her life that had nothing to do with the undead.

Ever since her great-aunt Eustacia had informed Victoria, two years ago, that she was the next in their long family line of Venators-vampire hunters-Victoria’s life had become filled with the red-eyed undead and their gleaming fangs, sharp wooden stakes secreted on her person, and the challenge of appearing normal to the rest of London Society.

Victoria was anything but normal, for she wore a holy strength amulet, the vis bulla . The tiny silver cross every Venator wore pierced through their skin imbued them with the extraordinary powers of their calling: speed, strength, and fast-healing capabilities.

But despite her unique skills, Victoria’s current problem was of a more common variety for a young woman.

It had to do with a man.

She looked at the rich bloodred gown her maid had pressed in anticipation of tonight’s ball given by the Duchess Farnham. It lay spread on the hip-high bed in all of its lush glory. With its low dйcolletage, clean lines, and understated frills, this was the kind of frock that would, like a magnet, attract a gentleman’s attention to her person as he attempted to keep his chin off the floor and his gloved hands to himself.

With her creamy skin and thick, dark hair, full red lips and thick-lashed eyes, the gown would merely be the final touch to a magnificent presentation.

Dressed thusly, with her curling hair piled high to show off her long, elegant neck (which was, at the moment, devoid of vampire bites) and white shoulders, she would cut the kind of figure that would cause Sebastian Vioget’s amber eyes to smolder and his fingers itch to touch. His attention would linger on her, heavily, leaving her no doubt of what he wanted to do… what, in fact, he had already done on numerous occasions.

And as pleasant as those memories might be, unfortunately, Sebastian Vioget wasn’t her problem.

It would have been so much easier if he were.

There was an enthusiastic knock on the door, and then a burst of energy bustled in. Her maid Verbena had springy orange hair that matched her personality: loud, uncontrollable, and colorful. “M’lady, I’m sorry ’t took so long t’find these,” she said, flapping a pair of soft pink gloves. “They ’ad a stain an’ I forgot I took’em to wash, an’ left’em to dry. Grass stain, from th’ party at Lord Fenworth’s after yer return from Italy. Didn’t want t’come out, an’ I thought to m’self, What will my lady wear…?”

Victoria let her maid prattle on. The grass stain was indeed from the Fenworths’ fкte-when she had had to slay a vampire in the garden. Gloves got in the way when handling a stake, and she’d removed them, losing them in the battle and grinding one under her foot into the grass. But apparently her maid had been able to remove the stain, for the pale pink appeared unmarked. They would look lovely, evening out the sensuality of her garnet-hued gown.

And Max might even notice.

But then again, he noticed everything.

Yet beautiful gowns, intricate coiffures, witty conversation, and intelligent questions made no difference to a man who’d confessed-under duress-that he loved her. But would never, under any circumstances, stay with her. Be with her.

Because he was afraid for her.

Since her mother wasn’t around, Victoria didn’t bother to stifle her snort.

Afraid for her. Her. Illa Gardella. The most physically powerful woman in the world, the leader of the Venators. The woman who had the strength and speed that matched superhuman vampires.

He was afraid for her .

Victoria snorted again. It was more likely that he was afraid for himself. Or, more precisely, his heart.

Bloody coward.

He was currently living in the servants’ quarters here in this house, which had belonged to her great-aunt Eustacia but now belonged to Victoria. Yet it was only a matter of time until he disappeared again.

Only two weeks had elapsed since they’d been captured by Lilith, the vampire queen, and escaped from her wrath yet again. Frankly, Victoria was surprised Max hadn’t slipped away yet-particularly since the last time they’d been alone was when he’d admitted that he loved her-and had then proceeded to leave the room. Flee, more accurately.

He’d taken great care not to be in her presence alone since.

At that moment, she realized that during her wool-gathering, Verbena, who was as efficient as she was verbose, had removed the dressing robe Victoria wore and was now raising the heavy silk gown over her head. Victoria lifted her arms so that she could find the short little sleeves made of ruched and gathered silk. The frock fell smoothly to the floor, where its hem was anchored by two narrow rows of flounces. As Verbena buttoned the gown up over her mistress’s corset and shift, Victoria considered her options.

There was no sense in trying to make Max jealous. He’d been encouraging her into Sebastian’s arms for months now. Although Victoria had spent her share of time there, she’d realized no more than a few weeks ago that the man she loved enough to spend the rest of her life with wasn’t Sebastian Vioget. It was Max Pesaro.

That realization had been creeping up on her for a while, but it had come crashing down upon her unsuspecting head after she’d spent a night in his arms. His warm, muscular arms. Against his long, powerful body.

“Yer shiverin’, my lady. Can ye be cold? Y’ can’t be chilled. It’s July, and from the size o’ my poofy hair, y’can tell how warm ’tis out. I do hope ye aren’ gettin’ a chill. Nothin’ like a chill in the summer, t’make ye miserable, y’know.”

Victoria steered her thoughts away from that exceedingly active night that had been the culmination-she realized belatedly-of two years of tension between her and Max.

Max, whom she had mistaken for a vampire the first time they met.

Max, who had believed she couldn’t be a successful Venator because, when he’d first met her, she was more concerned about gowns and balls and dance cards-and the gentlemen of the ton .

Max, who had been there when she slayed her husband, Phillip, after he was turned to a vampire by Lilith the Dark.

Max, who was too damned honorable and unselfish to accept what she knew he wanted.

But she’d at last wrung the confession from him.

I didn’t want to love you, but I can’t help it. I don’t want to be without you, but I bloody well will, Victoria. I’ll not go through this again. I’ll not risk your damned neck again. It’s the way it has to be.

Victoria looked at herself in the mirror, tall and slender, now garbed in a striking gown the color of blood. A circlet of diamonds and garnets adorned her throat, and heavy matching earbobs hung against her white neck.

These trappings weren’t the solution to her problem. For a man like Max, she would have to be more subtle. More cunning.

She’d have to appeal to his sense of honor-without appearing to do so.

But… She smiled at herself in the mirror. Looking like this certainly couldn’t hurt.

After all, even Illa Gardella had other weapons besides stakes.


Wherein the Marchioness Is Without an Escort

Victoria made certain that her back was to the hallway as she spoke to Verbena. “He’s not doing well, not at all,” she said to her maid. “It has been a most difficult year for him, losing Aunt Eustacia and then his nephew… and now…” She allowed her voice to trail off, and smoothed the rich red gown Verbena had helped her don moments before.

She felt rather than heard the cat-footed presence behind her and looked meaningfully at Verbena.

“Poor Kritanu,” the orange-haired maid was quick to respond. “An’ him losin’ his hand that way… I jus’ don’t know… Mona says he ain’t been eatin’ much and I ’eard him walkin’ the halls jus’ th’other night, my lady. Jus’ walkin’ and walkin’.”

Kritanu, the elderly man who was Victoria’s martial arts trainer and who had been Aunt Eustacia’s lover and companion for more than fifty years, had suffered several losses in the past several months-the most recent being that of his hand. It had been cut off when he and Sebastian had been captured by a group of Lilith’s minions. Sara Regalado, the leader of the group, had also maimed Sebastian-cutting off the small finger of his left hand.

Kritanu and Max had been close friends for years, ever since Kritanu’s nephew, Briyani, had become Max’s martial arts trainer. Briyani had been brutally murdered by the vampires a few weeks before Kritanu’s injury.

Victoria shook her head as she pulled on the stain-free pink gloves. “I’m quite worried about him,” she added for good measure. “I don’t know what to do. I just hope…” Again her voice trailed off, as if she didn’t want to be overheard.

“Another party tonight?” asked Max as he came into the front hallway. “Ah, the busy life of the dowager Marchioness of Rockley.” It was hard to tell whether he was coming or going, for he insisted on staying in the servants’ quarters at the rear of the house, and therefore rarely made use of the front entrance.

He was sorely underdressed by Society’s standards, as was his way-his white shirt was rumpled and his neck cloth slightly askew. The dark breeches and coat he wore were well made but certainly not recently pressed, nor were they at the height of fashion. Tonight, his thick, dark hair was pulled back into what Victoria had come to think of as his pirate look-in a short club at the base of his skull, the hair sticking out from the leather thong like the stiff bristles of a brush. With his swarthy skin, dark brows, and angular features, he wouldn’t be considered handsome as much as striking. Imposing. His dark eyes barely glanced over her, as if terrified that by lingering they might be trapped.

“Indeed. Duchess Winnie-of course you’ve met her,” Victoria added with a little laugh.

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